“Watch me,” goes the refrain of Lemon Andersen’s first hip-hop interlude in his one-man show “County of Kings.” “Watch me be an artist who was born ready-made,” he instructs, and he’s not kidding — the babyfaced, baggy-pantsed, baseball-capped ex-con is one of nature’s performers, with a knack for evocative turns of phrase and a hair-raising biography that holds our attention during the prose breaks between his mesmerizing poems. Despite backing from Spike Lee and local political theater company the Culture Project, the production’s tech aspects need polish, but its center — Andersen — is pitch-perfect.
The language in Andersen’s show is so much fun that it’s tempting to quote the entire script, but probably best not to. You can’t read his thick, old-school Brooklyn accent or his slightly nervous-looking gaze, and those are the things that make his oddly precise turns of phrase ring out like punchlines. Coney Island is “a mess hall of drunk lifeguards getting robbed under the boardwalk,” Brooklynite kids hang out on “a cold April stickball street,” in an Ohio prison “all you got is your word, your orange jumpsuit/your uncertified mail” — these little bon mots appear and then vanish every few minutes, like a tropical lizard running in and out of holes in a cinder-block wall.
A biracial high-school dropout who found a life in the theater through poetry slams, Andersen represents uniquely uncrowded demographics both under the proscenium and among his fellow hip-hop poets: he’s the baddest badass at the Public Theater, and the palest face in the Def Poetry Jam group photo.
“When they first see me they never take me serious/till they find out my talent don’t come/from the color of my skin,” Andersen says at the beginning of the show — an odd sentinment to hear from a blond, vaguely angelic-looking 34-year-old white guy, but not an inappropriate one.
It’s the breadth of Andersen’s life that gives “County of Kings” so much pathos, and the richness with which he describes that life. Remembering loving stepfather (and talented car thief) Chado, Andersen fondly recalls finding mufflers strewn around their apartment in tones usually reserved for kids talking about Christmas morning. “I loved waking up and finding stolen car parts in the living room,” he says, “‘Cause that meant we were going to Chuck E. Cheese!”
Things take a turn for the worse when Andersen’s mother and Chado contract HIV by way of dirty needles they’ve been using to shoot heroin (little Lemon, horribly, discovers a used hypo behind the toilet and decides to use it as a sword for his Voltron toy).
This is around the time we start to notice inconsistencies in the design: the sound is too loud, then it’s in and out, then it’s gone when it’s clearly supposed to be there. The lighting is pretty much the same wash except for a couple of moments when it contracts to a spot for Andersen’s act-openers and closers. Most importantly, though, we really want to hear every word he’s saying, and between the Spanglish and his hyperkinetic delivery style, it takes some major concentration to get the gist of things in too many scenes.
These are problems that helmer Elise Thoron likely could have solved — the performer had this material down pat during last year’s Under the Radar Festival, so it’s not likely they needed a whole lot of time for him to brush up on his lines.
Any imprecision on the design/direction end is a minor annoyance, ultimately. Andersen’s story would probably speak for itself in any number of other media, but with the writer-performer telling it in his own ghetto-poet hybrid language, it feels deeply, convincingly honest.